Thursday, October 31, 2013

Voices of the Pioneers - Classic Oral History Brought Up to Date

From 1955 to 1971, the Friends of the Spokane Public Library performed an admirable public history project. They recorded a series of oral histories with notable early settlers of Spokane and the surrounding regions. Though the 1950s and 60s might seem like long after the white settlement of Spokane in the late-nineteenth century, it is well within the range of a human life, and they were able to gather both eyewitness accounts and family stories one generation removed. The interviews were recorded on tape and sometimes shellac records. In the 1970s they were transferred to cassette tapes to be shared with the public. Transcripts were created for most of the interviews.

The Voices of the Pioneers collection is a treasure trove of information that is often found nowhere else. It includes eyewitness accounts of the Great Spokane Fire of 1889, stories from the mines of Idaho and the wheat farms of the Palouse, the founding of prominent Spokane institutions such as the Spokesman-Review and Gonzaga University, and so much more.

A couple of years ago one of my grad students here at EWU, the excellent Shaun Reeser, digitized the records, tapes and transcripts and worked with the staff of the Washington State Archives to get them online.The collection is a great resource for anyone researching or teaching the history of the Inland Northwest, but if you are not familiar with the Digital Archives website, it might be a bit confusing to find what you are looking for.

Here is an index to the collection, prepared by the Spokane Public Library in the 1970s. This might be a good first stop to get a sense of the what the collection includes.

The audio files are here, The Washington State Archives has a nifty tool that allows you to keyword search untranscribed audio, so you can explore the collection that way. Try "Indians" for example:

The transcripts are here. Due to the architecture of the Digital Archives website, the transcripts are not directly linked to the audio files. There are a couple of audio files for which there are not transcripts, and a couple of transcripts for which the recordings were not located, but the overlap is probably 95%.

I have a team of students in my Digital Storytelling class working with the recordings right now and they are coming up with some wonderful entertaining stories. They are editing down the original interviews into 60- and 90-second podcasts for use in the Spokane Historical smartphone app for local history. I will highlight the best of these when the class in complete in December.

The Voices of the Pioneers collection at the Digital Archives website is really a fun place to explore, and a cutting-edge match of classic oral history and digital technology. Give it a try!

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